Whether a nation can rejuvenate, or renew itself with its own power, is an existential question. Some say, “Europe is a continent of empty cradles”. Even Hungary has been fighting the demographic crisis for three and a half decades; for thirty-five years, each and every year more people died than were born.
The ageing of developed societies and the low desire to have children signals multiple problems. An ever-decreasing number of young people have to provide for more and more elderly: they have to work longer to keep up the same standard of living, a situation that endangers the sustainability of social, healthcare and pension schemes. Sustainable development requires a social policy in which demographic and family policy play a key role. In order to make rejuvenation possible for our nation, it is important to recognise and support families that raise children, and to develop targeted measures and regulations for improving their lives. Having recognised this, the Hungarian Government puts special emphasis on strengthening families and developing a family-friendly political approach and way of thinking. Our goal is to make Hungary a truly “family-friendly country”.
The approach emphasising only individual rights and individual needs is gaining more and more popularity globally, while support for communities is pushed into the background. Alluding to family life being a private matter, decision- makers ignore the viewpoints of families, and view everything from the vantage point of the individual. Thus in many places in Europe, it is forgotten that strong communities, strong nations cannot be built without strong families. This is why international cooperation is needed. We have to demonstrate the strength of families and communities and point out the results we can achieve by not forgetting these important values.
To promote family-centric thinking, we cooperate with countries and organisations with similar values. It is a pleasure that Hungary has met with international recognition as a result of its family policy measures. This success provides an excellent basis for engaging in joint thinking and strengthening a family-friendly approach in our region and in farther areas as well.
A DEMOGRAPHIC SNAPSHOT
Hungary’s population has been decreasing since 1981. Young adults choose to start a family later and later. Currently, on average, women have children after reaching 30 years of age. Another disadvantageous circumstance is that, in Hungary, the number of child-bearing aged women has been decreasing for 20 years. The will to have children has not reached a desirable rate for 40 years. It is also cause for sorrow that the number of abortions is still rather high.
Despite these disadvantageous circumstances, since our conservative government has taken office, demographic data have been moving in a good direction, and positive trends have begun. The fertility rate has not been as high as it is now for 20 years; this marker has increased by 20 per cent in only five years. The number of weddings is at a twenty-year high. The number of young people who choose to reinforce their relationships in the form of marriage grew by almost a half in six years. Last year infant mortality and the number of abortions was the lowest ever measured.
In 2010 the desire to have children and to start a family was at its lowest for Hungarian people. The country had to be dragged back from the brink of the demographic rift. We made a family-friendly turn in government policy, our goal being the creation of a work-based and family-friendly society.
It seems that the decades-long negative tendencies may stop, and the markers that can be considered the confidence indicators of the Hungarian society have turned in a promising direction. After all, it is a basic truth that, in a modern society, many children are born if the young can trust the future.
OUR BASIC VALUES
Hungary respects human life, freedom, human dignity and communities. Especially, human life is to be highly respected and protected. This principle is emphasised in various sections of the Fundamental Law, for example in Chapter 1: “We hold that human existence is based on human dignity”, and then in the Section “Freedom and Responsibility”: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the foetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” That is, the Fundamental Law sets forth the protection and unfolding of the full dignity of human beings. In 1991, the Constitutional Court laid down the bases for the regulation of abortion. Accordingly and as a result of respecting women’s right to self-determination, abortion cannot be prohibited in Hungary, yet – for the protection of unborn life – it can be restricted and can be performed only when there are serious reasons for it. The defence of foetal life and a woman’s decision over her own body cannot be turned against each other, and for it has inconceivably harmful consequences. We believe that all human life must be respected in all stages of life.
Hungary respects the independence of other states, recognises their internal legislation and provisions, and expects other countries to do so. As a sovereign state, we define our own values and interests so that we can introduce measures as targeted as possible. We insist on this approach which, most probably, is evidenced most clearly by our foreign policy. We regard the European Union as an alliance of sovereign states. We believe that the unified force of nations stems from our common European, Christian roots. Nowadays, there are visible signs that the 21st-century European community ignores more and more its intellectual and cultural heritage, and fails to find its roots. This urges us to strengthen our nation-state, Christian identity, traditions, and, in this spirit, defend our values bravely on the international stage as well.
The most basic community is family. Family is the cradle and maintainer of life, and it is our duty to protect and strengthen it. As the Fundamental Law puts it, “We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence”, and, with its more specific provisions, offers a stronger protection for families and recognises that families comprise the foundation of Hungary’s integrity. It also protects the institution of marriage and states that the foundation of family lies in marriage and in parent–child relationship. It declares that Hungary shall encourage the commitment to have children. We endorse the family-friendly system of values in the entirety of our legislation. Besides the Fundamental Law, the Act on the Protection of Families, which reflects the inter-governmental aspect of the goals of family policy, also ensures that the rights of families are strengthened and widely recognised. The Act guarantees stability for the family policy measures and states that the support of families has to be emphasised during budget planning, and that the State has to harmonise work and family-related tasks. The interests of families are put in focus throughout our entire governance. Supporting and strengthening families on a continuous basis is also guaranteed by our legal system.
We do believe that the intellectual, ethical, religious and social values are the key to the development of our society and country. Families show how strong a nation is. If families are strong, then the nation is strong, too. We define our social policy foundations and measures based on this conviction. The welfare of families is the motive and common denominator for our political acts. The reason for this is that the future of Hungary as a whole depends on what types of tools we create and operate in the interests of families. In 2010, being aware of Hungary’s demographic problems and neglected families, we initiated comprehensive changes in social policy. We decided to treat family policy as a central issue, and – in order to create a family-friendly social environment – we set long-term goals.
Besides families, the protection of the value of marriage is another fundamental objective of ours. Hungary’s Fundamental Law defines the concept of marriage as follows: “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage, the conjugal union of a man and a woman based on voluntary and mutual consent, and the family, as the basis for survival of the nation.” This means that the concept of marriage is a basic value of our legal system, and, thus, deserves protection and support. The Government is also dedicated to women’s rights, but without denying or trying to eradicate the obvious and natural differences between the two genders; it seeks to create and strengthen the conditions for a balanced cooperation between women and men. The centre of women’s policy is the creation of a harmonic balance between men and women in the fields of family, employment, social security, decision-making roles, dignity and inviolability as well as education.
The disadvantageous demographic situation of the country also determines the formation of various policies and actions. This is also true for women’s policy, which will thus be focused on balancing family and work life in the forthcoming years as well, in order to eliminate the conditions that hinder the fertility rate, and to ensure the possibility of the birth of desired and planned children. The reconciliation of the two most important fields of our everyday life, family and work, is a basic goal. It is a proven fact that the reconciliation and reciprocal construction of these two areas has a significant effect on demographic markers and the level of employment. In welfare states where secure, value-creating work can be harmonically reconciled with family life, much more children are born.
SOCIAL POLICY MEASURES – A FAMILY-FRIENDLY SOCIAL POLICY
It is indeed our belief that a precondition of the medium- and long-term social development of Hungary is a turn in demographic trends.
As shown by surveys, couples, especially women in Hungary plan to have more children than they finally have, and the ideal number of children for most Hungarians is two. Those who would have three children outnumber those who would have one; the number of people unsure about this question is insignificant.1 Many decide to have children at a later stage of life. These phenomena can be balanced with properly designed tools and awareness-raising programmes.
Given the situation described above, a prioritised goal of the Hungarian Government is to effectuate a sustainable demographic turn and – linked to it – a comprehensive change of perspective, focussed on healthy and strong families. To this end, in 2010 we started to work on the establishment of a society based on families and work. We formulated our social policy measures along these principles. We spend 4.67 per cent of our GDP on supporting families, which is considered exceptional as compared to the rest of the world (the fourth highest proportion; the OECD average is 2.44 per cent). More specifically, 1.9 per cent of the GDP is allocated to monetary support, 1.1 per cent to services and 0.7 per cent to tax allowances.2 The amount of support granted to families significantly grows year by year. Our monetary expenditure related to family policy has more than tripled since 2010. From HUF 260.4 billion it increased to HUF 869.4 billion by 2016. We have set up and are operating a family policy system that is capable of meeting various demands simultaneously, and has a financial and symbolic incentive power. It is our firm belief that an ideal family policy is flexible, stable, complex and targeted. Such a policy should also respond to changing conditions and should be predictable. Thus, it will be able to create a safe environment for families.
Another pillar for the implementation of the demographic turn and for the birth of all planned children is a society based on work. People tend to dedicate themselves to starting a family once they feel that predictable conditions and proper financial resources are available. Therefore, conditions that help young people thinking of having children must be created. International experience corroborates this fact, showing that the birth rate is growing in those countries where the state – besides encouraging employment – pays great attention to the reconciliation of professional and family life, and makes attempts to create flexible conditions. In Hungary, the dual-earner family model is the most common, which means that typically both members of couples take part in the maintenance of the household. Therefore, a high level of employment for women is an important government objective. To this end, it must be ensured that women can meet both of their own demands and can perform both of their social duties. At the same time, it must be taken into consideration that it is particularly difficult for women with children to perform equally well in both fields. We think that it is an important task of the state to recognise that looking after the family and children while working efficiently presupposes an extra performance. Therefore, in this respect too, we attempt to create conditions that are aligned to changes, and recognise performance at work and at home alike.
The two pillars of our Government’s policy are family and work. We have set the goal to provide access to work for everyone. Our tax policy supports those who decide to have children. The tax burden of wages is considerably decreased for parents raising children. The family tax allowance provides a considerable financial advantage for families with one child and large families alike. The properly targeted nature of the measure is shown by the fact that it reaches 94 per cent of families. Nevertheless, family tax allowance is constructed so that it gives preference to those raising a large family and as such the value of the allowance is exponential. Due to the allowance the parents of an average income, dual-earner family with three children do not pay any personal income tax.
It is an important objective of ours to increase the participation of women with young children in the labour market. In this regard, the Job Protection Action must be mentioned. It is a complex measure that, in the case of the employment of persons belonging to groups that are the most vulnerable in terms of employment (e.g. women with young children), reduces the wage costs to be paid by the employer. This measure helps to keep workplaces and involve this social group to the largest extent possible, providing them with the opportunity to return to the labour market. Hungary’s family policy, due to its complexity, assists families in various ways, but always takes into consideration that it is the parent with young children who must have the opportunity to make a decision that is best for him or her. Besides dual-earner households, we also concentrate on families where one of the parents (in most cases, the mother) decides to stay at home to raise the children. Our main task is to try to offer each family type an opportunity that is most suitable for them in terms of raising their children.
The measure package “Child Care Fee Extra” (Hungarian abbreviation: GYED Extra) serves the freedom of parents’ choice. Its introduction marked a major phase of the Hungarian family policy. GYED Extra improves the living conditions of persons with children in various fields. To understand GYED Extra we must have a quick look at the policies of family support in Hungary in the past. Before 2014 if a mother of a child younger than three years old wanted to return to the labour market, she lost the child care benefits. GYED Extra enables mothers with young children to return to work after the child reaches the age of six months while still receiving the full amount of the child care benefit, which means that she receives her salary and the state benefit alike.
The system before GYED Extra “penalised” those families that had children with short intervals as the family received the benefits only for the youngest child if the age gap between the children was less than three years. GYED Extra enables the family to keep previous benefits when a sibling is born.
Another important step is that GYED Extra supports young parents who have a child during or shortly after their college or university studies and who have not had any previous employment. Today these parents receive benefits that they were not entitled to previously. Employers that employ parents with large families are entitled to more tax allowances. The number of those receiving benefits is rising year by year; last year it was approximately 70,000.
In our opinion, it is important for the pension system to recognise women’s increased share of the social burden. Our measure Women 40 serves various goals. First, it enables women who performed their duties at work and at home alike to retire from the labour market once their eligibility period expires, even if they have not yet reached the pensionable age. Another evident objective of the decision-makers was to strengthen cooperation between generations, as women who retire using this option will have the opportunity to participate in caring for grandchildren and their elderly parents. If grandparents assist in caring for their grandchildren, the parents will have the opportunity to continue the professional career they started before the children were born. Hitherto, a total of 186,000 women have used the option.
A better reconciliation of professional and family duties called for the development of the day-care institutions for children. Until 2020, we allocated HUF 100 billion to the increase of the number of places in day nurseries and kindergartens, as the proper availability of institutional care for young children is a key factor that determines how individuals time their returning to the labour market after their children are born. Furthermore, we have initiated a reform of the system, whose objective is to ensure that it is basically the parents’ demands that define the way institutions operate. Before 2010, the then political leadership failed to recognise the double role of women, and did not properly appreciate the social activity of women who decided to become full-time mothers. From now on, raising children is equally important, regardless of the fact if the parent is employed or is staying at home. The social duty thus performed is equally significant.
As evident from the above, our tools are extremely diversified, yet all of them serve a single purpose, namely, the implementation of a family-friendly social policy. Generous family policy benefits the entire society and allowances form its core. Besides financial support, it includes institutional developments, such as measures taken to improve day care for children and employment policy incentives. Moreover, we have introduced several other measures that support family founding or make life easier for families with young children.
In terms of starting a family, a key factor is to have a home of an adequate size. In this field, we launched the most significant programme of the past 25 years. It is intended to exert its effects in two ways. With the introduction of the Family Housing Allowance (Hungarian abbreviation: CSOK) scheme we attempt, on the one hand, to ensure that the lack of an adequate home does not prevent individuals from having children, and, on the other hand, to allow for economic recovery through the construction sector. The measure is complex; it consists of various elements. For large families, the major element is that, in case of purchasing or constructing a new flat, they are eligible to apply for a support of HUF 10 million and for a loan of HUF 10 million at a discounted rate. In addition, during the construction process families may recover the amount of VAT up to HUF 5 million, while a preferential VAT rate (5 per cent) continues to be imposed on the prices of construction materials. Another pillar of the housing allowance programme is the National Community for Homes (Hungarian abbreviation: NOK) that functions as a community funding model and whose objective is to give members of the community access to new immovable properties within a short period of time. As a result of the housing allowance programme those young couples, who accept the condition to raise three children, may purchase a new home without a down-payment.
The well-being of families and children is a particularly important goal of our family policy. The options for child catering free of charge or at a reduced price have continuously improved in the recent period. This is demonstrated by the fact that in recent years the state expenditure for child catering has been increased by 2.5 times (in 2017 it was more than HUF 73.9 billion). The number of children provided with three or four free meals in day nurseries and kindergartens in Hungary is over 75 per cent. This is exceptional even on an international level. The development of the catering programme, however, needs to be extended to the quality of food as well, because surveys show that we have every reason to pay attention to children’s health. The persistence of poor eating habits of children would result in an extremely unfavourable public health impact in the long run. With this in mind, we introduced major reforms and modernised the catering system of educational institutions, which means that children are offered more fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and wholemeal bakery products.
The diversity of our family policy profile is reflected by our highly successful social holiday scheme targeted specifically at children, large families, people with disabilities and pensioners. Our Erzsébet Programme, a unique scheme in Europe, reaches a very large number of citizens. Since its introduction in 2012, 800,000 people (including 400,000 children) have used the opportunity to go on vacation or participate in summer camp programmes at a reduced price. Keeping the present framework but also considering the possibilities of extension, we wish to develop the programme further as it provides recreation and special experience to more and more generations every year.
The benefits, allowances and cost-cutting measures specified above point in the same direction: the well-being of families and, thus, the evolution of a stronger society. Still, we claim that family policy is not simply the totality of benefits offered. The propagation of a way of public thinking that focuses on families must be of equal significance. In this regard, we are working on the introduction of a family-friendly quality to workplaces, public institutions (such as institutions of education), that is, to the country as a whole.
As for awareness-raising, our work is supported mainly by NGOs and churches. Since 2010 the Government has supported or launched several programmes aimed at the importance of a family-friendly attitude. Since 2011, through calls for tenders and individual support, the Government has involved social actors in the promotion of a family-friendly approach, the restoration of a family-friendly public way of thinking and practice, and the building of family communities. In this spirit, several calls for tenders have been published. The tenders focussed on the support of educational and training programmes, lectures and communication programmes aimed at preparing young people for the choice of a partner, marriage and family life. The Family-Friendly Workplace Prize is intended to encourage employers to create as “parent-focused” environments for working mothers and fathers as possible, thus ensuring a proper balance of private life and professional life for them.
In 2010 data on the willingness of Hungarians to start a family and have children gave rise to serious concern. The results of the supportive, family-friendly policies, however, have started to show. Our primary objectives ensure that all planned children are born and that those Hungarian citizens who wish to have children will not face any constraints. The positive demographic indicators are to be interpreted as a combined effect of family policy measures and constructive employment policy initiatives. Recent years have seen a rapid increase of female participation in the labour market, which justifies the support of the dual-earner family model and our family-friendly initiatives (more specifically, the creation of flexible conditions that are becoming more widespread or the support of the balance of family and professional life). The current rate of female employment (almost 60 per cent) is to be regarded as a major success; in Hungary, the rate has not been that high since the time of the democratic transition.
OUR ACTIVITIES AND GOALS ON THE INTERNATIONAL LEVEL
It is a priority for Hungary to keep contacts with other countries and international institutions and share opinions on different issues. In many countries, especially in Europe, politicians, NGOs and churches are working on the solution of similar social problems. Demographics make joint thinking even more justified. As a result it is important to introduce and represent our family-friendly views, means and measurements on an international level and to learn about foreign results and tried and tested practices. We treat the question of families in an international context and we follow closely all events that have an effect on the lives of families. We actively stand up for our principles regarding basic values, communities, family and national independence in international politics. As opposed to individualistic views we support communities, with the family as our reference point. We work in line with these principles both domestically and on the international level. We disapprove of the attitude of international organisations that concentrate more and more on individual carrier opportunities and personal fulfilment. For us family is the most natural form of community and unit of life. After all, this institution has proved to be a world creating force for centuries. We must accept the fact that children are a resource that ensures development and sustainability not only for their own families, but for the whole country, continent and humanity.
We are proud that several Hungarians play a leading role in the family organisations of Europe, and the president of the European Large Families Confederation is also a Hungarian. The first Budapest Demographic Forum was organised in 2015 involving several international experts on demographic and family policy. It was a successful and inspiring forum, bringing lively and interesting discussions. We indicated that this topic is important for Hungary and we are ready to implement and share new experiences and practices of proved value.
In 2017 Budapest will be the capital of families as we will organise three significant conferences. It is a great honour for Hungary to host this year’s World Congress of Families. This significant event will be one of the events of the Budapest Family Summit along with the 2nd Budapest Demographic Forum and the programmes of the organisation One of Us. These forums, held on consecutive days, will be an important meeting and networking opportunity for the representatives of the scientific community, NGOs, churches and experts of demography and family policy. The most important goal of the international forum is to discuss the views on the questions of demography and map possible solutions. Hungary remains committed to having dialogues and is willing to cooperate with all countries that consider population as an important field of government policy and see family as a solution instead of a problem.
1 Ideal and actual number of children, Chart SF2.2.C. and Chart SF2.2.B. In: OECD Family Database, 2016 (Downloaded at: 07/02/2017).
2 Public spending on family benefits. In: OECD Family Database, 2016 (Downloaded at: 07/02/2017).